How Pervasive Leadership Can Help You Manage Successful Projects


Jean Richardson shares a story about how the idea of pervasive leadership can help you manage a successful project. In order to practice pervasive leadership, one must change one's mental model of "I" and "thou," act locally and think holistically, and enact empathetic stewardship.

The final retrospective on the Hepburn project was complete. And next week, she would be starting another one: the Whistler project. Lisle had one more wrap-up report to complete for the project management office. She kicked off her pumps and wriggled her aching feet. One lock of long, dark brown hair fell into her eyes as she arched and stretched her lower back. The matching blazer over the back of her chair was an indication of the presentation she had made earlier that day.

She had completed the interviews with the Whistler team and the sponsor this week while wrapping up the retrospective and closing phase activities on Hepburn. It took awhile to get the Whistler team to understand they had the right to hire her or not.

From her perspective, the Acme Corporation’s PMO’s recommendation was only a recommendation. It had cost her some social credits with the head of the PMO to stand her ground on that. But she had learned the hard way to stick to the precepts of pervasive leadership:   

  • Change your mental model of I and thou.
  • Act locally; think wholistically.
  • Enact empathetic stewardship.

Ever since she started applying those three guidelines in her work, projects had been, if not truly easier, then certainly more regularly successful. The “not necessarily easier” part probably came from the fact that she had a tendency to take on the toughest, most screwed-up messes around.

She had had the same series of conversations with the Whistler sponsor. He also thought she would be his only option. Lisle doesn’t work that way.  She prefers to be invited in rather than imposed on a project.

On Monday morning the fifteen-person Whistler team showed up at 9 a.m. in West Riding, and Lisle was there to greet them.

“Good morning, everyone,” she greeted them. “As we discussed last week during the interview phase, I work a bit differently. Of course, I’ll want you all involved in the project assessment. I’ve negotiated a ten-day hiatus for us to assess the project, replan, and propose a ‘get-well’ plan. But before we do that, I’d like to have a conversation that I have found to be a key conversation on any project. There are three things we need to talk about so we can ensure we have a sound partnership to build on as we go forward.

“First, what is the purpose we each have in being on this project?” Some team members snorted. “If it’s just about the paycheck, that’s fine, but let’s all be clear with each other,” she said.

“Second, when we look at our common purposes in going forward together, is there anyone who feels their purpose doesn’t fit with the project or that the project is no longer compelling? If so, I will be happy to advocate for a reassignment, giving you a positive recommendation based on your engagement to this point.” Some team members narrowed their eyes; other shifted in their chairs.

“Third,” she continued, “if you commit to continuing on this project, you agree to do so based on the understanding that we all have joint accountability for delivering this project. The system we will put in place allows us to highlight risks and issues very quickly and requires that we speak up for what we need very quickly. Once our analysis shows we can turn the project around, we agree we have no one else to blame if we can’t deliver.”

The room was absolutely quiet.

“And, fourth,” Lisle went on, “we will commit to the greatest degree possible to be open and compassionately honest with me, yourself, and each other about how you think the project is going, what your challenges are, and any changes that need to be made in order for us to be successful. We’ll be having this kind of conversation on a daily basis, and in a more in-depth manner at the end of each iteration.”

“How do we know you won’t just go tattle on us to management?” Sandy challenged her.

“As discussed last week,” Lisle said, “that’s not to my benefit. I hold myself to these same standards, and you are welcome to raise it in front of the group any time you feel I am not meeting them. My stance with the PMO is pretty much the same as it is with you.”

“Sandy,” Jamey, the technical lead, said, turning to face her, “we checked her out with her last project team and with Dave last week. She checks out.” Dave, Lisle knew, was the head of the PMO.

“She’s the sixth PM we’ve had this year, and—” Sandy began.

“Sandy, we had this conversation last week,” Jake said. Lisle noticed that he was still wearing the Harley Davidson jacket and heavy, leather black boots he had been wearing all week. “We all voted on giving her a chance. That means give her a chance.”

Sandy gave him a long, level look and sat back in her chair. The room was still quiet.

“So,” Lisle said, “shall we get started?”

They spent the rest of that morning having what Lisle always thought of as “the partnership conversation.” She needed to understand where each team member was coming from, to know what caused all of them to stay on the project, and to provide a comfortable exit for anyone who wanted out. Sandy tried to leave the project during the morning. The team spoke up and persuaded her to stay. She had the second most experience on the project, and she was the only senior analyst.

Lisle also needed them to understand what her purpose was in coming onto the project. They learned during the course of the morning that they could challenge her and ask her almost any question—even somewhat personal ones—without her freaking out. Eventually, they understood that Lisle saw herself as being in service to the team and the organization. And she taught them a key precept of pervasive leadership:Enact empathetic stewardship. That applied to the organization, the team, and the project. This puzzled some of them, but Jamey seemed to get it and was excited by working this way.

After lunch, they regrouped to talk about how to do the project assessment over the remaining nine business days. They hadn’t asked her to go to lunch with them, and she noticed that they broke up into groups—part of the team went one way, and the rest went another. That was interesting. Not unlikely, she was a topic of conversation over lunch.

Lisle used the time to take a walk, grab a bite to eat, and refill her water bottle. Then she spent ten minutes in a quiet, dark corner to “look at the inside of her skull,” as she called it. Feeling refreshed and composed, she went back into the work session.

She laid out a typical project assessment model for them. Many of the team had never seen one. It had just been “done to them” by other project managers. While Lisle held on to the Delphi method tasks of talking with all the stakeholders, other team members took on various research and analysis tasks. The project repository was a mess. It was even difficult to tell where the most recent project dashboard was. She’d get that from the PMO.

By 4 p.m., everyone understood their part in the assessment plan and headed back to their desks to set up the tasks for tomorrow. They’d check in at a 9 a.m. standup.

The next morning, Lisle walked into the room to be present for the standup. Team members drifted in. She remained standing, saying good morning as each person entered the room. At 9 a.m., she turned to them expectantly—and they looked expectantly back. Uh-oh.

“How do you usually do your standup?” she asked.

“The PM checks the status of each task, and we tell her what it is,” Santosh said.

Lisle thought it was definitely time to change their mental model of I and thou. Joint accountability wouldn’t work otherwise.

“Right. Well, during the assessment phase, we’ll get in a circle facing each other, all standing up to keep the meeting short, and go around the circle saying what we did yesterday, what we’re doing today, and where we need help,” she said.

She continued, “Yesterday I was in a series of conversations with you all until about 4 p.m. Then I went back to my desk and made appointments with the sponsor to follow up on whether we would get an acting sponsor, and with Dave to find out his perspective on the project. Then I dug around in the project repository to see whether I could find a steering committee roster. I also sent an email to Dave asking him for a copy of the most recent dashboard.

“Today, if I don’t have the dashboard from Dave before we meet at 11 a.m. I’m going to see whether any of the other PMs might have a copy. I’m going to let Dave know we’re on track to get a reset recommendation in nine days. And I’m going to make the rest of the appointments for the stakeholder interviews we talked about yesterday.

“I need help with finding that steering committee roster. Does anyone know where it might be? And does anyone have skills in setting up a wiki? I think we’re going to need one for reporting outside our team.”

The team looked at her a bit stunned. A slow smile dawned on some faces. Then, everyone stood up and followed the model she had just used. A few needed prompting to get through all the parts of the standup conversation. At the end, several people partnered to help each other, and the team drifted out of the room. Jamey stayed behind.

“I was pretty worried when I heard you were coming onto the project, and so were most of the team,” Jamey said. “But you’re not nearly as scary when you’re with us as you are when you’re out there around the office. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Lisle had heard this before. It had taken years to take it in. Finally, she realized what she could change to soften her style and become more approachable.

“I’m sorry I appeared scary,” she said. “I take my work very seriously. I get sick and tired of all the bloodshed—the indiscriminate waste of human energy I see on so many projects. Actually,” she grinned, “I’m a real pussy cat when you get to know me.”

“I’ll bet,” Jamey said. “A Maine Coon or maybe a Norwegian Forest Cat.”

The project analysis proceeded swiftly with everyone working together. When the team looked at the data six days out, it was sobering: three thousand documents in the repository, most not accessed in more than six months. Three million dollars spent in the last eighteen months, and nothing useful delivered. No steering committee meetings in a year. A turnover rate of more than 50 percent. Inconsistent use of a source code control system, and no defect tracking process or software in place.

The team looked at each other and at Lisle, then away. Some were clearly angry.

“How did this happen?” Sandeep, one of the newer coders, asked.

“A little bit at a time,” Jamey said quietly.

Sandy fumed, “They didn’t listen to us. They never listened to us.”

Lisle could see she was about to start another rant.

“All right!” Lisle said. “Things will be different now, or I won’t continue on the project.” Several people looked up in surprise. “Knowing what we know now, do we still have a partnership to go forward with purpose, commitment, joint accountability, and absolute honesty? Let’s get it out there. Do we think we can turn this around?”

After a period of silence, Jamey said, “I think we can.” Several developers looked at him hopefully. They respected him, and for good reason: He had both technical chops and the ability to understand the organization.

After a heavy sigh, Sandy said, “Yes, I think we can, too. But we have to change the way we’ve been working, and we’re going to need a lot of support from the organization, which I’m not sure we can get.”

“Leave that to me,” Lisle said. “Let’s get a workable plan in place. Let me know the support you need, and I’ll include it in the presentation. I’ll need at least some of you to show up in case I get some tough questions. And, as far as I’m concerned, you can all come.”

They had dug into the project so thoroughly that the organizational issues preventing success had become clear, as well as issues with their own skill sets and work processes. It was time to think locally and act wholistically. It wasn’t as though all of Acme Corporation’s projects were green. About half were red at any given time; this one just happened to be throbbing magenta.

As Lisle worked with the team to flesh out a plan, she also worked on the organizational interests in her presentation. Several key items, if solved for Whistler, could help other projects currently on the skids.

The day of the presentation came, and Lisle, backed by the team, appeared before the head of the PMO, every project manager in the organization, executive stakeholders, and the project sponsor. Dave said he had never seen such a thorough analysis and turnaround plan. Lisle credited the team’s full participation and support.

The turnaround plan was ratified, due in no small part to other project managers speaking up about similar problems on their projects. Whistler was given special latitude as a prototype. The PMO wanted to see if certain changes would decrease the number of red projects at Acme. Eight months later, at Whistler’s final retrospective, the hypotheses and hard work of the team had been proven. Once a complete disaster and organizational embarrassment—the project everyone ran from—Whistler had turned out to be the project others envied.

And Lisle had come to have great affection for the team. Her last day on the job was a bit sad, but the prospect of two weeks in Hawaii made up for it. She’d need the rest. The next nasty mess was out there waiting for a project manager with some moxie.

User Comments

Valerie D'Sa-Mayer's picture

I found this article so informative that I joined this community just so I could leave a comment.  What a brilliant way to explain concepts that are otherwise explained in drab ways.  Looking forward to more of the same as it is especially useful to anyone who is new or relatively new to the fields of project management/Agile.


December 6, 2016 - 2:07pm

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